Is striving for work-life balance the right approach?

The term ‘balance’ indicates an either/or situation, where we constantly aim for that equilibrium. Rather, shouldn’t we be focusing on achieving work-life effectiveness?

Updated: Mar 31, 2017 09:49:04 AM UTC

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization accelerating progress for women through workplace inclusion. With operations in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, and Japan, and more than 800 supporting organizations, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work.

Image: Shutterstock.com (For illustrative purposes only)
Image: Shutterstock.com (For illustrative purposes only)

Many would remember the interview of Indra K. Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo at the Aspen Ideas Festival, back in 2014, where she gave her frank take on the work-life balance issue and mentioned that ‘having it all’ was just an illusion accompanied by painful sacrifices and trade-offs. Nooyi brought forth the everyday struggle faced by many working women and mothers, along with suggesting various coping mechanisms to deal with the guilt they felt.

As per a Catalyst study, 61% Indian men were more likely to say that managing work and personal life was ‘easy’ for them, compared with 48% of Indian women. Ninety percent of Indian women also reported that workplaces do not meet their work-life needs.

This debate on work-life balance has been a never ending one. Men and women all over the world are trying to figure out the impossible balance of work priorities and real life while achieving success in all parts of their lives. For many, our jobs make us who we are—what we do is inextricably tied to our identities. So, work-life effectiveness is an essential concern for all employees, particularly for those who are working in emerging markets where fast evolving economies often entail long hours of work and overtime.

But here arises the question: is striving for work-life balance the right approach? The term ‘balance’ indicates an either/or situation, where we constantly aim for that equilibrium. Rather, shouldn’t we be focusing on achieving work-life effectiveness?

Researchers at Catalyst fashioned the term that portrays the notion where one’s work and the other aspects of life complement each other and fall in sync. It is a management tool that challenges the status quo and focuses organizations and their people on the right work at the right time with the right talent. Work-life effectiveness is important for organizations to create more inclusive work environments for women and business as well as to promote cultural transformations that change workplaces and lives. The right course to achieve work-life effectiveness is through flexibility.

Earlier, when we were ‘out of the office’, it meant that we were not working. But today, that is not necessarily the case. In this increasingly globalized, technology-charged world, the typical office workplace has drastically changed, forcing businesses to change with it. Organizations have become more flexible, providing employees with the option of working in “virtual” offices via handheld devices and laptops.

Flexibility is not just about being flexible with time, but also about being strategic, which requires both employers and employees to be open and creative in questioning the process of how work should be done, and why.

Today’s high-potential talent pool is looking for a company that  offers the option of flexible work arrangements (FWAs) – work structures that provide flexibility regarding the time and/or place in which work is completed. FWAs includes flexible arrival and departure, flex time, telecommuting, compressed work week, reduced work / part time and job sharing. All this helps organizations and individuals challenge old assumptions about work; the notion of an ‘ideal employee’ and expand the range of work behaviours and styles among both women and men.

The bottom line here is that face-time doesn't lead to top performance outcomes. Employers should learn to trust their employees and not be so concerned about when and where the work is completed as long as deadlines are met.

As our country continues to develop into a stronger economic power, with an all-inclusive mindset, work-life programs become increasingly important for workforce effectiveness and for promoting advancement of women. And just like what Nooyi said, every woman needs her own support system, be it in office or at home, to help her strike a balance between professional and family life.

While people rely on the support of extended families such as their parents, in-laws, paid-help and even professional care services when it comes to child and adult care-giving responsibilities, on the professional front, the organizations have to reach out with a helping hand too. They should frame and implement work-life programs that have a right mix of global and local customs of the regions where they operate. This ensures that the strategies make sense in employees’ day-to-day lives. It is in this view that Catayst’s India Inc.: From Intention to Impact report points out the following areas to improve women’s workplace inclusion: Foundational approaches such as anti-sexual harassment training, Flexible work arrangements and cultures, Employee leave and reintegration programs such as maternity leaves, Leadership development programs and Employee inclusion efforts. The need to provide career-advancing opportunities, where men and senior leaders feel an equal stake in the game, will propel organizations to the next level in gender inclusion.

Positive amendments by the government on work-life related policies and legislation such as Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill 2010; Maternity Leave Benefits Act of 1961; Factories Leave Act of 1948, are always welcomed.

The new adage is ‘Work is something we do and not something we go to’ and organizations need to realize this fast enough. Workplace flexibility is no longer just an option, but a vital strategic business tool that organizations need, in order to maximize talent. Employers who view workplace flexibility as a holistic strategy for improving work-life of all employees and not just mothers or caregivers, will be ahead of others when it comes to recruiting and retaining talented work force.

- By Shachi Irde, Executive Director, Catalyst India WRC

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